Complexity, sustainability and social networks

I’ve been participating in some interesting conversations around the web (here and here) on the use of social networks * in sustainability communications. Many marketers are struggling to develop a successful social media strategy, and those who are trying to talk about sustainability have a whole new load of problems to deal with.

The complexity of sustainability issues makes them difficult to talk about in social networks

When looked at through a traditional marketing/advertising lens, social networks look like a risky channel in which to discuss potentially complex and difficult topics. Very few people or brands have an unblemished record. However worthy your efforts are in one area, you’re likely to be lacking in another. And on social networks, it’s all too easy for your well-intentioned attempts at conversation to be drowned out by snarky comments and criticism.

But sustainability is a complex issue. Jon Alexander quotes Guy Watson of Riverford on the issue:

Environmental and ethical issues are never simple. Organic farming embraces more than can be squeezed into a soundbite: the balance of wildlife and biodiversity benefits, animal welfare, absence of pesticide residues in our food, reduced CO2 emissions , severe restrictions on additives and arguably flavour and nutritional quality is just too much to convey in one snappy slogan. Single issue products, whether fair trade, free range, ‘pesticide-free’ or local, have proved easier to sell, despite their silence on other issues. A ‘free range’ chicken may spend next to no time outside, be kept in a shed the size of an aircraft hangar, in a sea of mud with tens of thousands of others at a stocking density double that allowed by the Soil Association, be de-beaked and fed antibiotics. Its food will be produced with pesticides and fertilisers but none of this is a barrier to conveying a simple emotionally engaging message. In marketing terms, it takes too many words to explain that organic poultry offers so much more.

This kind of complexity, and the associated risk of criticism; coupled with the high resource overhead required to nurture the community and manage the conversation can make social media look less than appealing as a comms channel for the busy marketer.

But sustainability is an ideal context in which to use social networks

If you ask the question, ‘what are social networks good for?’ (or, ‘why should a marketer be interested in social networks?’) what kinds of projects fit the bill?

Clearly interesting projects, ones which are remarkable, or worth taking about. But also projects where all participants have some kind of ownership; where they are all collaborators rather than just producers and consumers, or governments and citizens. Where they all have a part to play, where they can learn from and be inspired by their peers.

And in fact, sustainability programmes have many of these qualities. If you’re trying to reduce the lifetime carbon footprint of your product, then involving suppliers and end-users is essential. And whether you’re sharing your journey with these people, discussing the challenges, or involving them in innovating solutions, social networks are ideal tools to help facilitate and engage.

So I’m positive about the potential for brands to use social networking tools for sustainability programmes. Along with customer service and reputation management, collaboration is a great reason for a brand to be using social digital technology, and we all need to collaborate if we’re going to create a sustainable future.

* I use the term ‘social networks’ interchangeably with ‘social media’. Although the latter seems to be the more commonly used language, I prefer the former because it comes without all the baggage that that ‘media’ carries. Social media suggests a comms channel; a space to advertise; a broadcast medium — all modes of communication that just don’t work all that well in the networked digital space.